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“Not Your Father’s DOJ”: The Emergence of Community Violence Intervention

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In February, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) hosted the first-ever Community Violence Intervention and Prevention Initiative (CVIPI) grantee convening in St. Louis. CVIPI seeks to prevent and reduce violent crime in communities by supporting comprehensive, evidence-based violence intervention and prevention programs. In 2022, DOJ, through the Office of Justice Programs, invested $100 million in grant awards to help communities nationwide reduce gun crime and other serious violence.

DOJ’s support for and investment in this discipline comes at a pivotal time when public safety and policing are at the forefront of national conversations, and builds on investments made by many institutions—including philanthropy—in recent years. The Joyce Foundation played an integral role in supporting the convening, with President & CEO Ellen Alberding moderating a plenary session on the intersection of philanthropy and government in advancing CVI, and Louisa Aviles, Senior Program Officer in the Gun Violence Prevention and Justice Reform (GVPJR) Program contributing to the framing of sessions about philanthropy and CVI.

Louisa joined the Foundation in 2022, where she focuses on advancing GVPJR’s mission of building safe and just communities in the Great Lakes region through support for effective state-level gun policy and for the policy and practice of violence intervention. We asked Louisa to talk about her longtime experience in CVI and being part of the historic CVIPI convening.

Joyce Foundation (JF): How long have you been working in community violence intervention and how has it changed since you started?

Louisa Aviles (LA): In 2009, I did a fellowship at the New York Police Department (NYPD), which wasn't specifically focused on violence but was my first exposure to the incredibly messy and complicated work of public safety, and particularly responding to and trying to reduce serious violence in a city.

A few years after leaving NYPD, I joined the National Network for Safe Communities (NNSC) at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. At the time, NNSC was a handful of staff working to support 7 or 8 cities on implementing strategies to reduce community violence by bringing together partnerships of community members, outreach and support providers, and law enforcement to engage directly with the groups at the highest risk. I was at NNSC for almost ten years and saw interest in new approaches to violence prevention continue to grow as communities reckoned with the shortfalls of traditional approaches to policing violence.

It became routine for cities to approach NNSC for assistance with the support of both their police departments and communities most affected by violence, because everyone realized that traditional, policing-centric approaches were not sufficiently successful in reducing violence and building community safety. When I left NNSC in 2022, it had a staff of almost thirty and was working in more two dozen cities around the country and the world.

JF: What does the DOJ's recognition and involvement mean for CVI?

LA: It’s hard to overstate how far we’ve come. For decades, federal attention to the epidemic of community violence was vastly insufficient to address the scale of the problem. Federal priorities around gun violence contributed to the mass incarceration of communities of color – the limited flexible dollars that were provided to local jurisdictions to address gun violence were overwhelmingly spent on approaches that centered law enforcement and drove the prosecution of lower-level crimes. Almost no federal funding was specifically marked for community-based or even community-involved violence prevention or intervention strategies.

To go from that reality, to our current reality – where DOJ is spending $100 million a year specifically on community violence intervention and prevention, resourcing intermediary and technical assistance organizations, and funding research – is really incredible. To be clear, it’s not nearly enough in the long term, and there’s a great deal more that federal policy makers can do to support the field – but it’s light years better than where we were.

JF: Tell us about the DOJ convening? What stands out to you about that gathering?

LA: The convening was really moving. There were more than 400 attendees, many of whom came to this work through direct experience of community violence. To have such a big group of CVI practitioners and advocates hosted by the Attorney General of the United States and his top staff for three days, and given the platform and treated with the seriousness that the field deserves felt like a big deal. At the same time, it was a little sobering, because as I was running into a lot of familiar faces – folks I’d worked with in Baltimore, Baton Rouge, Minneapolis and others over the years – it was a reminder that while the expectations on folks’ shoulders are very big, the field is still very small, and this work is very hard.

JF: What do you think of philanthropy's investment in CVI? Is it enough?

LA: I think there is a tremendous opportunity for philanthropy to do more around community violence. We need more research, not just on particular programs and strategies but on the policies, practices, and investments needed to manage and sustain those strategies at the local level. We need capacity and field-building support to help practitioners get to and stay at the scale necessary to address community violence nationwide. Even as public funding for this work continues to grow (and it should, because CVI strategies even now get only a tiny amount of funding compared to law enforcement-based strategies) we need philanthropy to help incubate innovation and drive the leading edge of this work forward.

JF: How do we best balance the roles of philanthropy and government in advancing CVI initiatives nationwide?

LA: At the end of the day, public safety is a public function. If CVI is going to be part of a public safety ecosystem, we can’t outsource it – government has to be central in resourcing and managing community violence intervention strategies and should be prepared to turn any and every available resource to the purpose of violence intervention, when needed. I think that’s what a whole-of-government approach to ending community violence would look like. But while we make our way there, there is tremendous space for philanthropy to support innovation, absorb risk, fill gaps that government isn’t filling yet, like on research and evaluation, all to the end of continuing to demonstrate for policy makers the promise of these strategies.

JF: Why are more municipalities embracing CVI now as an alternative to "traditional policing”?

LA: I actually don’t think CVI is an alternative to traditional policing. Most of policing has nothing to do with community violence – we have something like 18,000 police agencies in the United States, but half of all homicides happen in only 125 cities. So you can have a whole other discussion about the purpose and value of policing, but very little of policing on the whole directly addresses community violence.

I think it’d be more accurate to say that at this point in history, community violence intervention strategies are a complement to policing. What police do around violence and how they do it really matters, and can make an enormous difference in how safe communities are and feel. But I think more cities are realizing that their existing strategies haven’t been very effective in dealing with the very, very small number of people who are the very most likely to be hurt or killed, or to hurt or kill someone else. That’s not just about policing – our social service agencies aren’t set up to support these folks, and neither are most of our community-based service organizations. But we can’t make progress on addressing community violence without figuring out how to keep these most vulnerable people safe and alive. We’ve tried to do that by relying solely on police – and I think what we’re seeing now is more cities realizing that they are not satisfied by that result, and wanting to add community-based violence intervention strategies into that ecosystem.

JF: What was it like meeting AG Garland? Any thoughts on his remarks and commitment to CVI?

LA: I think it spoke volumes that AG Garland opened the convening on its final day, and I’m glad he got to experience the attendees’ enthusiasm for and appreciation of the DOJ’s investment in this work. DOJ is the nation’s top law enforcement agency, and AG Garland is our top law enforcement officer. To have the nation’s top law enforcement officer standing in front of a room full of community violence intervention practitioners saying – your work is essential and it saves lives? That’s something the field can hold policy makers to now and for years to come.

U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland with Joyce President Ellen Alberding

About The Joyce Foundation

Joyce is a nonpartisan, private foundation that invests in evidence-informed public policies and strategies to advance racial equity and economic mobility for the next generation in the Great Lakes region.

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